Experts warn sex trafficking is a real issue in Arizona, even if that is not what is involved in multiple social media posts detailing recent, suspicious incidents in the Valley.
ABC15 reached out to police after two social media posts in the past week detailed what the posters described as possibly being the target of traffickers while at Valley businesses. The posts have been shared and commented on thousands of times.
Phoenix police told ABC15 officers did respond to a "check welfare" call at a business on September 9th, but the caller did not stick around to file a police report. Authorities say there were no witnesses to corroborate any details.
"Our anxieties were definitely up after we realized that they were following us around," said Lacey Ockey, who described a separate, bizarre encounter at a Gilbert business from last week.
Ockey told ABC15 while shopping at a popular business with her family, three women kept following them around, with their eyes focused on her young son. She posted her concerns to social media, with the post being shared more than 3,500 times.
"Sex trafficking was on my mind," Ockey said.
Gilbert police say they found no indication of criminal activity. Police say it's a great reminder, though, to ensure you make your and your family's safety a top priority.
While the online posts may be more fear than fact, experts say sex trafficking is a problem in our state.
ABC15 talked with a member of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council to see how often this actually happens. The council is a part of the Governor's Office of Youth, Faith and Family.
"Sex trafficking is very serious in Arizona," said Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, the Director of ASU's Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research. "It's something we pay a lot of attention to."
According to the 2017 Arizona Human Trafficking Council Report, sex trafficking in Arizona happens more often than you might think.
According to the report, a study focusing on 2015-2016 identified more than 2,000 sex trafficking victims in Arizona alone. Of those, more than 500 were minors, and more than 1,700 were adults.
As for the online posts, Roe-Sepowitz says they don't fit the mold for a typical sex trafficking incident.
"We have to be really careful not to get too distracted by big explosions of suspicion," she said. "We really need to be measured in the way that we address it and make sure that our efforts towards sex trafficking go into the right places."
Roe-Sepowitz says sex traffickers often groom their victims over a period of time.
"Traffickers use relationships to build trust and to groom people and to con them or convince them or trick them into a sex trafficking situation," she said.
As for Ockey's bizarre encounter, she says if not a crime, it was certainly creepy.
"I'm not necessarily convinced that it's sex trafficking," Ockey said. "But I'm convinced they were up to no good."
More information, and resources for sex trafficking victims, can be found here.